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A Pastor’s Perspective on Death and Evolution

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March 9, 2011 Tags: Problem of Evil

Today's video features Daniel Harrell. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

In an essay for The BioLogos Forum, guest writer Marcio Antonio Campos looks at the apparent contradiction between death entering the world through the Fall and the role of death in the process of evolution. If death did not exist before Adam and Eve, how could God have used evolution to create man? And what about predators and natural catastrophes such as the mass extinction of the dinosaurs, which both imply the existence of physical death before the Fall?

For those who didn’t get a chance to read the three responses presented in Campos’ wonderful piece, we certainly encourage you to do so. Today, however, we’d like to look at two videos from Daniel Harrell, Senior Minister of Colonial Church in Edina, Minnesota.

In the first video Harrell addresses the way that we view death. As we see in Paul’s letters, there is a judicial idea that physical death is the punishment for sin. According to Harrell, however, this is not the whole story. Death has a redemptive aspect as well.

Biologically speaking, the pastor reminds us, you cannot have life without death. New life is always accompanied by death. In spite of our belief that death is in some sense a punishment for sin, there is also the reality that Christ died for our sins yet we continue to die. The reason for this is difficult to explain if death truly is nothing but a punishment. A question continues to linger in the air: “If Jesus died to save me from dying then why do I still die?”

Harrell suggests, however, that the reason we continue to die is that death is not altogether bad. In fact, according to our understanding of biology, Harrell says, Adam would have died even if he had never sinned at all. There are two sides to death. On one hand, the broken relationship that comes from sin is a kind of death. On the other hand, physical death is a necessary part of biological life. As living organisms we all have a lifespan. Had Adam never sinned, Harrell believes he would still have passed at some point from this life to the next just as we will one day do through our faith in Jesus Christ.

In the second video, Harrell engages us in a speculation over why God may have chosen to create life through the evolutionary process. Christians often struggle to accept that God created through evolution because it is a process that requires a great deal of death and waste. They doubt that God would have chosen to create in a way that was not linear and beautiful.

Harrell, however, proposes that as Christians we can accept the idea of evolution in spite of these difficulties. He comes to this conclusion by realizing that death is part of the character of God. God’s supreme expression of love, in fact, was an act of death; Christ gave himself fully for the ones he loves.

Evolution is, in a sense, an analogy to this act of love we see in Jesus’ death. The many organisms that have lived and died throughout the course of evolution are God’s gift to his beloved children. All of this was “spent by God for the sake of life”.

As human beings, we expect God to do things the way we would do them: in an efficient, linear, and tidy manner. In reality, Harrell reminds us, God functions in ways that don’t make sense to us at all. After all, who would expect the God of the universe to become human and die? Likewise, it doesn’t make sense to us that God would create a world that exists through dying. However, God’s actions are not constrained by whether they “make sense” to mankind, for his ways are above ours.

Commentary written by the BioLogos editorial team.

Daniel Harrell is the Senior Minister of Colonial Church in Edina, Minnesota. He is the author of the books Nature’s Witness: How Evolution Can Inspire Faith, How To Be Perfect: One Church’s Experiment with Living the Book of Leviticus, and the forthcoming Wisdom of the Saints (And Near Saints): Christian Inspiration from A-Z. He also teaches theology at Bethel Seminary in St. Paul.

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normbv - #53714

March 9th 2011

There are two prevailing views on the nature of “death” under consideration as described in Gen 2 & 3.  One is the extreme literal viewpoint taken by YEC along with a lesser literal view as followed by Denis Lamoureux. This is in contrast to a more analogical viewpoint espoused by some such as Denis Alexander calling for an understanding of Spiritual Death. The difference in viewpoint is significant because if Alexander is correct than that explains a lot of how Paul was applying the “death” and “dead” aspects to Israel in his writings.  I would suggest that the book of Jubilees written around 150 BC takes the analogical viewpoint so there is good precedent for doing so historically.  The literal viewpoint became the standard the further the church got away from its historical Hebrew concepts. Here is a clear example of Paul applying the analogy of scripture to the concept of death and being made alive through Christ to those coming into the church. 

Eph 2:1-5 ESV And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked … carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, …  even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ

nedbrek - #53720

March 9th 2011

If death is good, and necessary for life (a gift even!) - if, not physical death, but spiritual death is the result of sin—then is not the “defeat of death” and “destruction of death” only referring to spiritual death?

Would we not expect eternity future to include death?

John VanZwieten - #53725

March 9th 2011

So nedbrek,

In your view, which death was defeated, the “first death” or the “second death”?

nedbrek - #53728

March 9th 2011

The second death is only mentioned in John’s Revelation.  It refers to being cast into the lake of fire, which I would take to mean spiritual death (under your system).

So, only the second death is defeated (as evidence that Christians still die - the first death).

R Hampton - #53733

March 9th 2011

Would we not expect eternity future to include death?

The New Heaven and Earth will be remade, meaning the physicals laws of Creation will (most likely) be different. The Catholic Church teaches that the attribute of decay will be removed, which would imply a universe without Entropy. I can’t imagine what form life would take - would the intake of energy even be necessary?

normbv - #53736

March 9th 2011

The first death is Adamic death [spiritual] and the second death is the casting into the lake of fire for those who refused Christ and their being rescued out of Adamic death thus the final eternal seperation from God. Ther first death was redeemable seperation while the second death is eternal and conclusive. Both appear to be “spiritual”.  Physical death symbolizes the finality of the hope of eternity that God puts in man’s heart Ecc 3:1] and brings it to a head.

nedbrek - #53737

March 9th 2011

R Hampton, while it is reassuring to hear that the Catholic church teaches that decay is removed, can you make a Biblical argument for it?

nedbrek - #53738

March 9th 2011

norm, I can see that.  But I can’t see a argument for the end of physical death there…

R Hampton - #53742

March 9th 2011

Rom 8:19-23 - the Church understands corruption to include physical decay, for example: We look to new heavens and new earth, Pope John Paul,

January 31, 2001

nedbrek - #53745

March 9th 2011

Romans 8 is talking about righteousness and how we tell if we are righteous or unrighteous.  For example verse 13 “For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live”.

Now everyone dies, so this is not referring to physical death, but spiritual.

So when verse 23 talks about “And not only they, but ourselves also, which have the firstfruits of the
Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the
adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body.”  This must also be spiritualized.  So, the redeemed body is still subject to physical death, but is immune to spiritual death.

normbv - #53755

March 9th 2011

Ned, I’m not saying that there is an end to physical death but that it was simply used as a metaphor to illustrate the finality that comes with being separated from God.

It appears the Hebrews looked around at the physical world and appropriated life, death and nature to illustrate symbolically spiritual applications to best describe things that are very difficult even for us moderns to verbalize.Since I’m an evolutionist I don’t see an end to physical death on planet earth until the worst extinction event imaginable occurs. Who knows we may last millions of years but since we have such a short track record as a species I would not take odds on it. However it sounds like a good betting line for Vegas.


nedbrek - #53759

March 9th 2011

norm, do you believe in life after death?

normbv - #53769

March 9th 2011

Ned, absolutely for those in Christ.

R Hampton - #53775

March 9th 2011

This is a good example of differing Christian theologies (yours and Catholic) derived from honest attempts to understand Scripture:

At the end of time, the Kingdom of God
will come in its fullness.  Then the just will reign with Christ for
ever, glorified in body and soul, and the material universe itself will
be transformed. God will then be “all in all”
(1 Cor 15:28), in eternal life.


nedbrek - #53781

March 9th 2011

norm, you said “I’m not saying that there is an end to physical death”, then you said (to my “do you believe in life after death?”) “absolutely for those in Christ.”

Are you agreeing with my presentation, that eternity future still has physical death?

normbv - #53849

March 10th 2011

Ned, I would agree somewhat if you are speaking of the ongoing physical earth. However I don’t see earth lasting forever eternally and I sure don’t believe there is physical death post mortem for us. So I would disagree that physical death is eternal in regards to planet earth. In practical sense it is eternal because if the earth can’t sustain us for one reason or the other then prophecy has run its course for humanity.  

nedbrek - #53878

March 10th 2011

Ok, norm, I thought you had a fairly orthodox position.

Do you see the point I am making, can you make a Biblical argument that we should not expect physical death on the new Earth in eternity future? (although we would not experience permanent, spiritual death)

normbv - #53900

March 10th 2011

Ned, I’m a Preterist [but not a post mil] concerning eschatolog and don’t look for a refurbished earth. I consider those ideas remnants of reading symbolic scripture literal when its not intended that way [much the way YEC read Genesis]. I consider our eternal existence to be with Christ and God in Heaven post mortem and expect we will be taken care of appropriately. Since I’m not a post mil looking for a new earth I consider your question not applicable.

nedbrek - #53927

March 10th 2011

norm, that is quite fascinating!  So, do you reject the notion of a “resurrection of the body”?  Are you saying we live eternally with God only in spirit?

normbv - #54013

March 11th 2011

Ned, the ressurection spoken of in the OT and NT is the raising of the church out of Adam’s death into the new church body of Christ. The first Adam was mortal and the second Adam [Christ] brings us into imortality. When we enter into the church [body of Christ] all of us should recognize that is when we enter immortal status. We know that Christ and God has power over life and death illustrated by the various people raised back to life to demonstrate that supernatural power. Of course the big demonstration was Christ being raised back to demonstrate God’s approaval of Christ as having conquered what the first Adam could not. Now we who are in Christ are no longer under the first Adam’s curse.
Since I don’t believe we are going to be coming back to a literal physical earth after our deaths I believe we go directly to where Christ and God are in Heaven. I have all the confidence in the world that we will be provided for just as Christ demonstrated. I have no idea though what the heavenly realm will be like. I can only imagine and look forward to it.

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